(This is an essay from our July 2015 print quarterly, ‘Disaster Politics’. See more from the issue here.)
Sri Lanka has experienced a range of natural and manmade disasters between 1900 and 2015. Some were ‘mega-disasters’ that struck the entire country, while others were localised events – floods, landslides and droughts – caused by the vagaries of tropical nature. Whether local or national, disasters take a toll on individual lives and livelihoods, causing setbacks in social welfare and human development. Disasters, however, do not impact the population indiscriminately. And neither does the period of recovery, where too, we find differences in the experiences of the people.
Three mega-disasters have had the biggest impact in Sri Lanka’s political economy over the last century. The first of these was the 1934-35 malaria epidemic, which became a turning point in the politics of disaster management and the growth of the Sri Lankan welfare state.
The second disaster was the civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka, which went on for nearly three decades since the early 1980s. This was an extended manmade disaster, with its roots in the increased ethnicisation of politics. The Tamil minority’s resentment about state discrimination in educational policies, disbursement of public sector employment, distribution of crown land and other benefits of development were the main driver of the armed struggle. In 2009, the war was finally won by government forces – drawn mainly from the Sinhala majority, in a campaign marked by ethno-nationalist fervor, high-intensity warfare and a winner-takes-all approach.
The third mega-disaster of the past century was the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which hit much of coastal Sri Lanka, and aggravated the misery in the war-affected northern and eastern regions of the country.
These three disasters had different effects on the Sri Lankan polity. The civil war spanned nearly three decades, the malaria epidemic unfolded over several months, while the tsunami hit the island as a one two-hour event. Yet all three had massive impacts. Along with the country’s geological and political realities, interventions by the state, the plantation economy and other political and economic actors set the stage for each catastrophe to become mega-disasters.
The reported death toll in the 1934-35 epidemic was between 80,000 to 100,000, nearly two percent of the total population in the country at the time. An estimated one-third of all people came down with malaria. Writers of the time referred to it as the “greatest catastrophe that undertook the country in the modern period” and “the greatest material disaster to befall the island”. Although the outbreak touched 19 of the 20 districts, it mainly affected the Sinhala-predominant districts of Kurunagala, Kegalle, Kandy, Matale and Ratnapura, in the wet and intermediate zones of Sri Lanka. Unlike in the dry zones, where malaria had been a persistent problem and inhabitants had developed a degree of immunity against the disease – giving them extra protection against new infections – people in the wet and intermediate zones had been only marginally affected by previous such outbreaks and had not developed similar levels of immunity.
This was compounded by prolonged drought in the same years, which added to food shortages triggered by a period of recession in the global economy. Malaria vectors took advantage of the pools that had formed along river beds. As rivers dried up, stretches of stagnant water remained, making it conducive for mosquitoes to breed and colonise previously non-endemic regions. It was a triple disaster: malaria of epidemic proportions, drought-induced famine and recession. This emotionally charged situation was characterised in Sinhala press at the time as kore pitata mare – double jeopardy on the already debilitated.
The malaria epidemic was the bedrock on which the leftist movement in Sri Lanka built its presence in the countryside.
The epidemic largely spared the plantation communities living at higher elevations. These communities had stable employment despite the recession. But the opening up of mountainous river catchment areas, for the establishment of plantations, contributed to the prolonged drought and the resulting epidemic in the dry zones. As elaborated in my book Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka, the 1934-35 disaster was largely caused by processes that emerged under colonialism. The pauperisation of the Sinhala peasantry due to land acquisition (for establishing plantations) added to the neglect they faced during years of colonial rule. And so, the disaster primarily affected the economically and socially marginalised – the small and landless peasants of the Sinhala community.
Under the Crown Land Ordinance of 1840, land was be acquired for plantation development by depriving the peasantry access for slash-and-burn agriculture, grazing of livestock and usage of forest products. The plantation workers brought in from South India became resident workers, while the impoverished locals, who relied on land cultivation, were provided only seasonal work. As a result, food supply and diet diversity of the peasantry declined, eroding their nutrition levels. British colonial authorities paid scant attention to the requirements of the peasantry, even when they established health services and developed infrastructure. The peasantry was thus left more vulnerable to infections and left to fend for itself.
Since the disaster unfolded during the process of decolonisation, State Council representatives, elected under the universal franchise established under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931, represented the Sinhala peasants. This led to an unprecedented politicisation of the epidemic, which, according to some critics, had the effect of “mixing of politics with quinine” on the part of Sinhala nationalist and even Marxist politicians. The malaria epidemic was the bedrock on which the leftist movement in Sri Lanka built its presence in the countryside. Due to political pressure from elected representatives, the authorities were compelled to provide immediate relief to epidemic victims; medical camps were organised, food subsidies introduced and food-for-work campaigns initiated. Numerous Sinhala Buddhist and Marxist charities were formed to reach out to those suffering. Among these, the worst off were women, children and landless people from low caste backgrounds.
Following the epidemic, representatives in the State Council played a vital role in shaping public policy. The main pillars on which the Sri Lankan welfare state evolved in the subsequent era included social service, free education, free health care and the development of colonisation schemes. Population pressure among Sinhala peasants in the densely populated wet zone was met with government-sponsored resettlement programs in newly opened dry zone areas. After the epidemic, security of the Sinhala peasantry became the target of most state policies. They received patronage and support of public-sector programmes, as the political elite relied on them for votes.
Welfare to warfare
This Sri Lankan welfare state turned into a powerful war machine after it took on the LTTE in the 1980s. The ethnic majoritarian bias of the welfare state was perhaps the inevitable outcome of the overwhelming Sinhala dominance in electoral politics and the tendency among the political elite to identify the country and its people as essentially Sinhala Buddhist. Minorities were neglected and thought of as capable of looking after themselves, especially due to the perception of ‘privileged treatment’ under colonial rule. In the end, the war had the effect of undermining the gains of the welfare state, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the country where the conflict was the most intense, causing massive displacement, deaths, disability and disruption of education and health services.
As the war progressed, the country became socially and ethnically polarised, with the military driven by the ideology of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism upheld by the state. Any concession to minorities was seen as an act of betrayal via-a-vis the ‘Sinhala Buddhist nation’. The Tamil Tigers, pursued the goal of an independent Tamil homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, identifying themselves as the sole representative of the Tamil people. They used both force and persuasion to recruit Tamil youth, articulating the Tamil struggle in self-sacrificial terms, with targeted suicide bombings, as a lethal component of their military arsenal. In the process, Tigers used brutal methods to either convert or eliminate moderate Tamils.
The extreme forms of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms turned to violence as the only means to resolve the conflict making ethnic reconciliation in any form unviable. The civil war had debilitating consequences for the combatants, their families, innocent civilians and the Muslim minority in the country – who were under tremendous pressure from the two conflicting parties to support their side. The limited resources of the state were diverted away from welfare to warfare.
The civil war had the effect of undermining the gains of the welfare state, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the country where the conflict was the most intense, causing massive displacement, deaths, disability and disruption of education and health services.
The impact of the war on the citizens, however, varied according to their socioeconomic status. Those with reliable contacts outside the war zone moved to the safety of Colombo or departed overseas, and the poorer were left vulnerable to the violence from the military and the LTTE. Members of the land-owning Vellalar caste, for example, had greater opportunity to move out compared to those from depressed castes. In a study undertaken by this writer along with Paramsothy Thanges in 2008, it was found that the Panchamar castes, at the lowest end of the Tamil Hindu caste hierarchy, were overrepresented among the long-term occupants of the internally displaced persons camps in Jaffna. This meant they faced additional barriers in moving back to their original homes in ‘high security zones’. Since there were more males than females among the casualties of the war, this has led to a distorted sex-ratio, with an excess of women over men in the surviving population.
In comparison to the areas outside, the war zones had more women compared to men, more people belonging to lower castes compared to higher castes, more impoverished compared to the better off, and a disproportionate number of people living with disabilities.
The war, and the weakened welfare state, resulted in a wave of philanthropy on the part of the overseas Tamil diaspora. The remittances sent for the benefit of their poorer relatives in the war zone helped overcome income deficits. While it is true that the LTTE thrived on the basis of the contributions by the diaspora, the latter also contributed to temple renovations, the establishment and upkeep of children homes and support for the elderly. Similarly, Sinhalese military personnel were hailed as war heroes (ranaviru). Religious worship (bodhi puja), financial assistance for the injured and disabled soldiers, and voluntary blood donations became important charitable activities during the war and in its aftermath.
The war was won by the state security forces within a global security paradigm that advocated ‘war against terror’ and a local atmosphere where the Sri Lankan state effectively harnessed Sinhala Buddhist nationalism as the hegemonic ideology of the state, as the driver for enhanced military recruitment. The oppressive character of the state, however, continued beyond the war. Even though the war ended in May 2009, the underlying causes of the ethnic conflict still remain. The regime change of January 2015 created some space for possible ethnic reconciliation, but how far this will go is yet to be seen.
Northeastern Sri Lanka had a degree of respite from the war due to the Peace Accord brokered by the Norwegian mediators when the second wave of tsunami hit the coast on 26 December 2004. Unlike the malaria epidemic, the tsunami affected Muslims, Sinhalese and Tamils alike, giving rise to a sense of common tragedy where civilians and combatants came to the rescue and helped one another irrespective of identity. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, there was some hope that this would usher a new era of peace and reconciliation, as was the case in the Ache region in Indonesia, which had a prolonged ethnic conflict of its own. This optimistic expectation was not realised, as the conflict took precedence over disaster management and trust building.
The 2004 tsunami was a disaster that could be termed global. Triggered by a massive earthquake in the ocean bed near the Indonesian archipelago, the resulting waves hit several countries in the Indian Ocean. Given its scale, the tsunami received instant worldwide attention through media coverage, leading to a humanitarian response of an unprecedented scale. The train disaster in Telwatta, the bus disaster in Galle and mass burials of the dead all along the Sri Lankan coast became iconic episodes covered by international media.
Unlike the response to the malaria disaster, which had contributed to the formation of the Sri Lankan welfare state, the international humanitarian response to the tsunami was fraught with mismanagement of funds, corruption and fostering of dependency among disaster victims.
Michele Gamburd, who conducted ethnographic research in a coastal settlement in South Sri Lanka in 2009, argues in her book, The Golden Wave: Culture and Politics after Sri Lanka’s Tsunami Disaster, that the local elite believed that while the tsunami destroyed all their assets and made them much poorer, the poor were better off, as they received newly built houses and many other assets that they never had. As the saying in the area went, “Atiminiha natiuna, Natiminiha Atiuna.” (Implying, those who possessed lost everything in the tsunami. For those who were assetless, the tsunami was a golden wave that brought in unprecedented treasures).
This, however, does not capture the full story.
The global humanitarian response to the tsunami disaster was short lived. Many international agencies which participated in the Sri Lankan effort had moved on to the next site of disaster before they had actually completed the recovery and rehabilitation work. The departure of INGOs left Sri Lanka with partially-built tsunami houses, and a sense of aid dependency. There was also increased distrust between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE over control and distribution of the limited tsunami aid. The coordinating mechanisms established by the state, called Post-Tsunami Operations and Managements Secretariat (PTOMS), to oversee the disbursement of donor funds, was unacceptable to the LTTE which charged the state with corruption. Access to aid disrupted social relations, as it escalated inter-personal, inter-household and inter-community tension – all signs and symptoms of how the ‘third wave of tsunami’ had more impact than the actual tsunami itself.
Unlike the response to the malaria disaster, which had contributed to the formation of the Sri Lankan welfare state, the international humanitarian response to the tsunami was fraught with mismanagement of funds, corruption and fostering dependency among disaster victims. The war-ravaged state lacked resources to efficiently respond to this massive disaster. Furthermore, controversial state policies declaring certain impacted areas as coastal buffer zones added to the difficulties of post-tsunami housing construction. The creation of the buffer zone was intended as a disaster-prevention strategy, so that any future tsunami would not cause additional death and destruction. But in a blatant instance of ‘disaster capitalism’, powerful investors with political connections illegally acquired some of the coastal buffer zone lands, vacated by tsunami victims, to build tourist resorts and beach fronts. Nandini Gunawardena and Mark Schuller, in their book Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction, explain how disasters open new opportunities to expand capitalism by transferring assets from small holders to outside entrepreneurs, reducing these small producers to wage earners.
These three examples illustrate the historical continuity of disasters in general and the greater vulnerability of marginalised social groups. Women and children are more vulnerable in natural disasters as witnessed in the malaria epidemic and tsunami, while men face higher rates of death, injury and disability during war. Governance issues related to disaster management, with its unprecedented levels of global aid flows, is juxtaposed against the importance of community resilience and democratic mobilisation. The outcomes of the war and tsunami point to the increased globalisation of disaster. This highlights the need to carefully craft state policies and policies of international humanitarian agencies in ways that build on local institutions, preventing the transfer of assets from desperate victims to speculative predatory external investors.
The Sri Lankan welfare state has serious challenges ahead. And if it aims to facilitate current recovery efforts, and prevent and manage future disasters, it must ensure an equitable and socially just form of disaster preparedness – one that transcends the state’s majoritarian bias.
~ Kalinga Tudor Silva is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Peradeniya. His publications include Decolonization, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka.